At the 50th anniversary of the death of American Zionist leader Abba Hillel Silver, newly-discovered documents appear to confirm his skeptical view of the Truman administration’s position on Jewish statehood.
Silver, a dynamic rabbi and Zionist orator from Cleveland, passed away Nov. 30, 1963. During the 1940s, he spearheaded a nationwide campaign of rallies, petitions and lobbying to convince U.S. policymakers to support the creation of a Jewish state in British Mandatory Palestine.
But not all Jewish leaders agreed with Silver’s activist approach. Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, who co-chaired the American Zionist movement alongside Silver, favored a more cautious strategy. He believed President Franklin Roosevelt, and later President Harry Truman, could be relied upon to support Zionism. Silver was more skeptical, arguing that senior U.S. officials could not be counted on to back Jewish statehood unless they faced serious political pressure from the Jewish community.
Two previously-unpublished documents, recently located by this author at the Central Zionist Archives in Jerusalem, appear to vindicate Silver’s view, at least to some extent. The documents suggest that Major-General Harry Vaughan, a senior aide to President Truman, privately harbored extremely negative views of Jews and Zionism.
Vaughan was a longtime friend and important influence on Truman, although his role in Palestine policy is not widely known. He is not even mentioned in most books about American Zionism or America-Israel relations.
One of the newly-discovered documents is a memo to Silver from one of his top aides, Dr. Benjamin Akzin, written in March 1946. Akzin was one of the heads of the Zionist movement’s lobbying unit in Washington, D.C. In the memo, Akzin describes what “reliable informants” had recently told him about attitudes toward Zionism among Truman administration officials.
“As an example of the real feelings of inner White House circles,” Akzin wrote, “they cited an instance when, at a social occasion, it was pointed out that the Arab policy of the government was certain to harm the chances of Jews in Palestine. To this, Colonel Vaughn [sic], the aide to the president and one of his very closest friends, replied: ‘Who cares about that? The Jews cause trouble wherever they live anyhow!’”
Akzin’s description accords with a second memo to Silver, this one from Eliahu Epstein, the chief Washington representative of the Jewish Agency for Palestine. Epstein, who later changed his name to Elath, would serve as the first Israeli ambassador to the U.S. In the memo, written in July 1947, Epstein complained that President Truman “remains passive” with regard to the Zionist cause.
Epstein then elaborated on the reasons for Truman’s indifference, the first of which was Vaughan’s influence: “I have heard that his military advisers, and especially his military aide, Major General Harry H. Vaughan, have a very bad influence on him where the Palestine question is concerned. According to my information, Vaughan is an anti-Semite and is strongly swayed by some of the British members of the Combined Chiefs of Staff.”
Truman’s Palestine policy was a maze of contradictions that often left American Jews bewildered. He urged admission of 100,000 Holocaust survivors to Palestine in 1945, but then rebuffed calls by Silver and other Jewish leaders to put economic pressure on the British to open Palestine’s gates. Truman supported the November 1947 United Nations plan to partition the Holy Land into Jewish and Arab states, but, three months later, backed off and endorsed putting Palestine under a U.N. trusteeship. When Israel was established in May 1948, Truman granted it de facto recognition, but then refused to provide the Jewish state with any weapons to defend itself against the invading Arab armies.
Vaughan and Truman met while serving in the army together in 1918. Later, as vice president, Truman hired Vaughan as his adviser on military affairs and ushered him into the small circle of close friends with whom Truman drank bourbon and played poker.
Vaughan occasionally found himself in the spotlight: in 1949, for example, a prominent journalist urged Truman to fire him for accepting a medal from Argentina’s fascist government. Truman angrily responded, “No S.O.B. is going to tell me who to have on my staff or in my Cabinet.” And Vaughan did indeed remain by Truman’s side throughout the rest of his presidency — no doubt much to the dismay of American Zionists.
The reputable car dealer’s advertisement in the local paper screams, “Brand New Mercedes — Only $500!”
You get excited but think it sounds too good to be true. Upon closer inspection, it is. The car dealer is offering only the hubcaps of the Mercedes for $500. If you want the whole car, it will cost the standard price. Suddenly, the car dealer doesn’t sound so reputable.
You would never find such an ad because no car dealer in his right mind would make such an offer. Yet hubcaps masquerading as the car is exactly what Steven M. Cohen and Rabbi Kerry Olitzky offer in their recent JTA Op-Ed titled “Conversion shouldn’t be the only path to joining the Jewish people.”
Cohen and Olitzky bemoan that, as of now, there is only one way for a non-Jew to become Jewish — conversion — and offer an alternative they call “Jewish Cultural Affirmation.” Under this scheme, those who are not interested in Judaism as a religion, and even those who follow a different religion, could choose the Jewish Cultural Affirmation path.
To achieve this lofty status, they suggest that the candidate undertake a web-based self-study course along with undefined “experiences of lived Jewishness.” Candidates could sample Jewish topics ranging from politics to comedy to social action and text study. They then would be eligible to receive a “certificate of membership in the Jewish people,” much like my certificate from the American Legion.
As someone who is married to a convert, who has spent the better part of his professional life as a Jewish communal leader and counseled a wide range of sincere people in intermarriages who seek entry into the Jewish people, I find such a proposal shallow, impractical and offensive.
To reduce membership in the Jewish people to a shallow cultural affirmation completely misses the point of being Jewish. To put it bluntly, herring is not a religion.
We are a people who, despite our small size, have for 3,500 years had a critical mission in the world. As Christian scholar Paul Johnson wrote in his seminal “History of the Jews,” “The Jews stand at the center of the perennial attempt to give human life the dignity of a purpose.”
Judaism addresses the most pressing life-and-death issues, teaches us how to infuse the sacred into all of existence and presses us to strive to become a “light to the nations.” To reduce all of that to a mere cultural affirmation is to say that the most profound elements of Judaism are unimportant.
The proposal is impractical. People who wish to convert can and will do so. The myriad approaches to American Jewish life offer a range of conversion options, from traditional conversions that require years of preparation and a commitment to all of the mitzvahs, to conversions that can be completed in a matter of months with minimal lifestyle changes. If someone is uninterested in following even a minimal conversion route, why would they be interested in affirming a Jewish identity at all?
And just what would such an affirmation accomplish? There already are a number of non-Jews in intermarriages who are attempting to raise Jewish children, who serve on synagogue boards, and who observe some Jewish holidays with their Jewish spouses even as they celebrate Christmas and go to church. Jewish educational opportunities are readily available to them. Rabbis and other Jewish leaders often praise their efforts.
All this has happened without an affirmation process or completion certificate. Creating a new process is superfluous. It would do nothing to change the reality on the ground.
Finally, Cohen and Olitzky’s proposal is offensive. In my experience, Jewish leaders who propose novel conversion procedures almost never consult with the end users — converts themselves, who could tell them from deep personal experience what is and isn’t needed.
The responses of converts with whom I shared Cohen and Olitzky’s proposal ranged from befuddled to offended. Most of all, they just didn’t get why something like this is needed. Neither do I.
A Jewish Cultural Affirmation track would undermine the hard work of sincere converts who have chosen to transform their lives and souls in joining the Jewish people. To offer Jewish Cultural Affirmation as an equally viable alternative to traditional conversion is to cheapen the process of conversion itself. And if cultural affirmation is offered merely as a second-class track, then it will do nothing except sow confusion.
Given the current tenuous state of American Jewry, so-called Jewish leaders and funders no doubt will gravitate toward new schemes dressed up as “solutions” to the challenges of Jewish demography. But as the recent Pew Research Center’s survey of U.S. Jews shows, the race to water down Jewish life has only weakened it. Rather than throwing more good money after bad, we should focus instead on what makes a Jewish life worth living.
Harold Berman, the co-author of “Doublelife: One Family, Two Faiths and a Journey of Hope,” is the former executive director of the Jewish Federation of Western Massachusetts. He and his wife, Gayle, are the founders of J-Journey.org, a support system for intermarried families who seek to become observant Jews. This column was provided by JTA Wire Service.
Right now, there is just one way for someone who is not Jewish to become Jewish in a publicly recognized and officially authorized fashion: undergo religious conversion under the auspices of a rabbi.
Whether the path to Jewish identification follows Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist or other auspices, conversion is explicitly and entirely religious in nature. These movements and their rabbis vary both in the preparation they demand and the religious commitments they seek of potential converts. But all require a significant measure of religious education, practice and expressed commitment to a Jewish way of life.
In the United States, interest in becoming Jewish has grown, owing in part to intermarriage, intergroup friendship, and more positive feelings about Jews and Judaism. As a result of Judaism entering the marketplace of ideas, Jewish thought and ideas resonate with many people. And with the melting of hard social boundaries separating Jews from others, many have entered into marriages, friendships and close working relationships with Jews.
Yet, notwithstanding the thousands of non-Jews who maintain familial, friendship and collegial ties to Jews, many with some interest in joining the Jewish people may be disinclined to do so for any of a variety of reasons. In the Jewish Community Study of New York: 2011, 7 percent of adults who identified as Jewish reported that neither of their parents were Jewish. Of the 7 percent, 2 percent said they formally converted and 5 percent said they became Jewish by personal choice and not by way of religious conversion. How can we explain the popularity of people assuming a Jewish identity without undergoing religious conversion?
We believe that some prospective converts to Judaism feel that religious conversion demands what for them would be an insincere affirmation of religious faith. Perhaps they are agnostic or atheist or secular, or even committed to another faith tradition. Others may be wary of adopting Judaism as an exclusive religion so as not to offend their parents or other family members, or because conversion requires abandonment of religiously grounded customs and holidays like Christmas.
Even though significant numbers of Jews are secular, atheist or celebrate Christmas as a seasonal holiday, holding such positions and observing such practices present prospective converts with insurmountable barriers to conversion.
As a result, many would-be members of the Jewish people have no possibility of engaging in a course of study and socialization that would lead to public recognition of their having joined the Jewish people, and they have limited access to enriching their familiarity with “lived Judaism” — the actual culture and ethos of Jewish life as lived in families and communities. And we know that most people live out their Judaism more in the informal context of family and friends than in the more formal context of religious institutions.
In theory at least, broader access to Judaism beyond that already offered by rabbis, congregations, and religious movements could result in more non-Jews in Jewish families and friendship circles building Jewish homes.
To provide a viable alternative to the religious route to becoming a Jew, we propose a second explicitly cultural pathway to join the Jewish people. This pathway, which we call Jewish Cultural Affirmation, would be clearly distinguished from Jewish religious conversion. Religious conversion would remain a rabbinic prerogative, and Jewish Cultural Affirmation would not assume an anti-religious ethos. Nor are we suggesting that Jewish Cultural Affirmation undermine or obviate the traditional path to conversion.
Rather, by offering an additional vehicle to acquiring a Jewish social identity, Jewish Cultural Affirmation would allow prospective Jews to acquire a measure of familiarity with being Jewish and to undergo a non-religious pathway toward membership in the Jewish people.
Candidates for Jewish Cultural Affirmation would undertake a course of self-guided study and experiences, outlined in a web-based curriculum to be developed by a panel of scholars, communal professionals and others. The curriculum would consist not only of reading, but of experiences of lived Jewishness.
Candidates would be encouraged to sample a variety of areas of Jewish civilization — such as politics, literature, music, comedy, social action, learning, organized community, Israel, chesed, and sacred and secular texts — and to achieve a level of familiarity with and competence in participating in American Jewish life.
Candidates would meet with mentors (in person and virtually), and gather from time to time in small group sessions, perhaps at private homes, restaurants, cafes or other convenient venues that are not explicitly Jewish in association.
For those who may come to desire official recognition, we propose a public ceremony that would need to be designed, and also a certificate of membership in the Jewish people, whose specific substance and formulation would need to be addressed.
Accomplished Jewish cultural experts — professors, writers, artists, educators, communal leaders and others — would constitute boards that would oversee the program and would attest to the validity of the affirmation.
Jewish Cultural Affirmation would not preclude eventual conversion by rabbis, should they seek more traditional religious recognition of their Jewish status by religious authorities. Indeed, acquiring an identification with the Jewish people is a crucial segment in all approaches to religious conversion, implying that Jewish Cultural Affirmation can be seen by religious authorities as comprising a significant step on the path to religious conversion.
We welcome those who would like to support this endeavor to join us in the conversation so that this proposition might be brought to reality.
Steven M. Cohen is research professor of Jewish social policy at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. Rabbi Kerry M. Olitzky is executive director of Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute. This column was provided by JTA Wire Service.
Counterpoint? “Herring Is Not Religion >>“